Talk Point: Can Doklam be contained? Will the tensions go beyond Doklam?

Indian and Chinese soldiers are locked in their longest border face-off in decades in the Doklam tri-junction area. More than 400 soldiers of the two countries have pitched tents in the mountainous region after the Indian Army says it stopped PLA soldiers from building a road in the disputed region. The diplomatic discourse between Beijing and New Delhi has become shrill with Chinese officials telling India “not to push your luck” and “go out” of the area. Washington has stepped in and urged the Asian giants to speak to each other and resolve the crisis.

As Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval heads to Beijing this week for talks, hoping to end the confrontation, we ask experts if Doklam can be contained, or if these tensions will only escalate.

The real escalation could be more political than military – PRANAB DHAL SAMANTA, Editor, ThePrint

In 2007, when India built a bunker on the Bhutanese side of the watershed in Doklam, the Chinese PLA destroyed it. Back then, the instruction from New Delhi was not to escalate because it would bring needless pressure on Bhutan and impact the grammar of the larger bilateral conversation. Instead, the effort was to evolve a way to deal with the trijunction issue until a settlement is reached.

That agreement happened in 2012 when the Special Representatives (SR) agreed that the boundary settlement in the Bhutan trijunction will be through a three-way consultation. The trijunction is a plotted point on the ridge where the watershed (River Amo Chhu) bifurcates. China contests that this is further into Bhutanese territory near Gemochen, close to India’s strategic Siliguri Corridor.

This time, India has gone into Bhutanese territory and stopped track-building efforts, quite different from the tactical backing off in 2007. This is an off-pattern, aggressive, potentially escalatory Indian behaviour from a Chinese standpoint, which has upset Beijing and could result in more pressure on Bhutan to force a choice.

But the real escalation could be more political than military.

If the validity of the 2012 understanding cannot be upheld, it brings the whole process into question. NSA Ajit Doval’s visit this week to China will reveal Beijing’s intent.

Will the Chinese Army stay through the winter season starting October? That would require maintaining a 200 km supply line and will be an escalatory message.

This would mean that India and China set up a fresh political dialogue to create new mechanisms of conversation.  The SR process was set up in 2003 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in China. Will Doklam now force a re-visitation to enable an honourable de-escalation?

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China cannot easily stand down without losing face — NITIN PAI, Director, Takshashila Institution

As long as Beijing insists that the only way to resolve the Doklam standoff is for Indian troops to fall back unilaterally, tensions will continue. A mutual withdrawal offers the best chance to not only reduce the military tension but also begin repairing the damage the episode has caused to broader bilateral relations.

Unfortunately, Beijing’s aggressive public posturing makes it very hard to negotiate this option, not least because China cannot easily stand down without losing face. Getting China to agree to a mutual withdrawal from Doklam is possible, but will require a combination of military resolve, diplomatic imagination and political nerve. However, even (if and) after such an outcome is achieved, this incident will transform the dynamics at the boundary.

The dominant view in New Delhi will push for greater investment in military capacity along the Himalayan borders. It is more important to redouble the investment in naval power and the missile programme. After Doklam, New Delhi can drop its concern for China’s sensitivities in engaging Vietnam, Japan, Singapore, Australia and the United States in shaping the balance of power in maritime East Asia.

India must not allow the Chinese navy to swing the maritime balance in the Indian Ocean and the East African littoral. It is possible that Beijing will be more amenable to diplomacy if it feels the effects of Indian power in more geographies. The issue at Doklam is not merely a dispute over who those remote ridges and slopes belong to: it is about how India and China manage their past, present and future disputes. Yielding to China’s threats now will give rise to more in the future.

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Difficult to say if the hawkish rhetoric on both sides represent the governments’ real strategic thinkingYUN SUN,  Senior Associate, Stimson Center

Can the Doklam standoff be contained? The answer is certainly yes, since technically, de-escalation of tensions is not that difficult. However, it is the political considerations in both countries that make it questionable whether either side is willing to take the first step and lose face.

From the Chinese perspective, Prime Minister Narendra Modi obviously has a nationalist agenda to fulfill and a domestic audience to appease. On the Chinese side, given the upcoming 19th Party Congress and President Xi’s power manoeuvre, it is unlikely that China will unilaterally make any concession, which would conflict with Xi’s foreign policy vision in any way.

It is difficult to assess to what extent the hawkish rhetoric on both sides represent the governments’ real strategic thinking. The Chinese seem to have grown accustomed to such conservative voices on the Indian side and even have developed contempt towards it. The Indians are keenly observing the changing tones reflected in the Chinese reporting. The Chinese government closely monitors and manages the content of the Chinese media. Some, such as the Global Times, are indeed used to test the water and send signals that the official government agencies are unable to convey.

Looking ahead, an involuntary withdrawal by both sides when winter comes might be the most face-saving way out for both China and India, provided that both are rational enough not to take risky moves to escalate the tension. Unfortunately, such a temporary solution will not prevent future, similar escalations.

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In the military sense, Doklam issue has already been contained – S. L. NARASIMHAN, Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Airpower Studies

The stand-off at Doklam has been continuing for more than six weeks now. The Chinese side has been insisting that India’s troops withdraw first. The question that comes to everybody’s mind is that can the Doklam issue be contained? If so, how?

In a way, the Doklam issue has already been contained. By doing what the Indian Army did, China’s effort to extend the road in Doklam has been contained in the military sense. On the larger issue of Chinese claims in that area, Bhutan’s statement and India’s highlighting the understanding of 2012 pertaining to the tri-junction areas has contributed towards containing China’s claims. By drawing international attention to this issue, China has helped in that effort herself. Now, the international community is also watching this area. Changing the status quo ante 16 June 2017 in this area will be more difficult for China.

The second question that arises is that whether there will be a spillover from this incident. The answer is yes.

Firstly, it could be in the form of increased number of border incidents from the Chinese side. Second, China may increase its assistance to Pakistan, which is already significant. Third, China may further increase her influence in India’s neighbourhood to marginalise India. Fourth, China’s pressure on Bhutan will increase to resolve the boundary issue and establish an embassy in Thimpu. Fifth, India is likely to face China’s intransigence in her efforts to play an increased role in international and multilateral organisations.

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China’s image as an economic and military power has been dentedJAYADEVA RANADE, President, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy

The face-off at Doklam is serious and differs from the earlier intrusions in content. The Chinese, who resumed building the road to Gyemochen after over five years, were clearly surprised by India’s swift, robust response in coming to Bhutan’s assistance and protecting its own security interests. China continues to maintain that Doklam is Chinese territory and Indian troops must first withdraw before negotiations can begin. India is equally adamant that the territory is disputed and it will not withdraw first.

As the face-off continues China has more to lose. Its image as an economic and military regional power, which countries are reluctant to challenge, has been dented. By coming to the aid of Bhutan and protecting its security interests, India’s neighbours and others would have noted that India will not compromise on security and that it is willing to stand up for its partners.

Threats in China’s strictly controlled state-owned media that India risks a repeat of the 1962 war, that China will reverse its agreed position on Sikkim, start an international campaign questioning the close India-Bhutan ties, stir up trouble in the northeast, and send People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops into Kashmir,  have caused long-term damage to the Sino-Indian relationship.

As Beijing discusses the future course of action, undoubtedly the Commander of the PLA’s Western Theatre, General Zhao Zongqi, and incumbent Commander in Shigatse, Fang Jianguo — both smarting at their plans being thwarted — would look to retrieve their prestige and advocate strong action against India.

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In Doklam, as in the South China Sea,  China is conducting itself in the same aggressive and lawless manner — KANWAL SIBAL, former foreign secretary

Judging from the repeated Chinese foreign office summons to India to withdraw unilaterally from the Doklam plateau before any talks are possible, the pugnacious warnings from the PLA against India harbouring any illusion that China will ever compromise on its territorial sovereignty, and the thuggish threats aired by Chinese state-controlled media, China could theoretically thrust a military clash on India. It has told its foreign interlocutors that its patience would run out if India failed to withdraw.

In Doklam, as in the South China Sea,  China is conducting itself in the same aggressive and lawless manner — staking “historical” claims on territories it covets, taking control of them stealthily,  proclaiming thereafter that it will never compromise on territorial issues, and then trying to bully those weaker into submission through psychological warfare that includes abusive language, coarse threats, and outright lies. These are the very tools that it is using against India liberally for being thwarted in its attempts to change the status quo in the India-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction due to New Delhi’s intervention.

Will China act rationally or will its hubris push it to escalate the situation militarily is difficult to say. Its choices are limited in the Doklam area as it cannot breach the Indian defences there. Elsewhere, it can intrude militarily, but at the cost of heavy casualties and uncertain results. Its international image will be severely damaged if it resorts to force. Fears that China’s rise will not be peaceful will entail more active hedging strategies by others to contain it.

The Doklam stand-off, like the 1987 Sumdorong Chu one, could continue for long, with the risk of a major downturn in India-China relations.

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War may be off the table, but China could still act out against India in other ways – MICHAEL KUGELMAN, Deputy Director, Asia Program, The Wilson Center

The good news? Neither side has a compelling incentive to go to war.

The bad news? Doklam tensions could play out elsewhere, in ways that affect Indian interests.

War is unlikely. Quite simply, India and China can’t afford to go to war.  They’re already consumed by taxing security challenges. India grapples with a Pakistani neighbour that won’t address anti-India terror on its soil. China is embroiled in a South China Sea imbroglio that it continues to exacerbate and faces the threat of nuclear North Korea. Meanwhile, India and China won’t want to squander their deep levels of economic partnership.

Still, don’t expect either side to back down anytime soon. Given the dreadful state of bilateral relations and the immense strategic value of Doklam, neither side wants to lose this game of chicken. This is a standoff that could well settle into a long stalemate before a resolution is reached.

A stalemate, however, could merely transfer bilateral tensions into other spaces. Pakistan, China’s close ally, could exploit the situation by pressuring India on another flank—namely the Line of Control, which has already experienced an upsurge of violence in recent weeks. Beijing could also redouble efforts to obstruct the sanctioning of anti-India terrorists at the UN, and to ensure that India is kept out of prestigious global clubs like the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

War may be off the table, but China could still act out against India in other ways. The question is how, or if, New Delhi hits back.

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The well-worn, time-tested institutional mechanism between the two countries is likely to contain the fallout of Doklam – Srikanth Kondapalli, professor in Chinese Studies, JNU

In the over-a-month stand-off between an estimated 200-odd troops each of India and China at the tri-junction with Bhutan, both countries have succeeded in containing any military escalation so far. This, in spite of the fact that the controversy spilled over into a media and psychological war, specifically from the Chinese side. While there were reports suggesting certain military movements in Tibet and Sikkim, by far these are not large-scale or offensive in orientation.

This lack of military escalation by both sides suggests a possible calculation of costs and benefits involved, including in the domestic and international domains and at the conventional and nuclear levels. As two “simultaneously” rising countries in Asia, that are relatively free from the encumbrances of other major powers, both have exhibited relative military restraint so far at Doklam.

Although the escalatory ladder of conflict is unpredictable, aggravated as it is by nationalist rhetoric, the Doklam stand-off is likely to fizzle out. However, since a similar standoff lasted many years at Samdurongchu in 1986, it is difficult to predict the time frame for the end of the current stand-off.  Sooner than later, the well-heeled and time-tested institutional mechanisms both at the diplomatic and military levels between the two countries in place since the 1990s, are likely to be pitched to contain the fallout of Doklam. Preparations for the 9th BRICS meeting at Xiamen in September, the domestic focus on the 19th Communist Party Congress meeting in October/November will be major factors in possible de-escalation at Doklam.

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. It was inevitable because of China’s expansionist policy , question was only when ! We overpopulated , castiest society.& corrupt nation never gave thought to prepare our selves to face the challange posed by China ,even after Pakistan having gifted disputed territory of Gilgit & Baltistan to China ! This was clear signal that China has no love lost for India ! Had we taken tough stand against China at that time things wouldn’t have come to this stage !

  2. The paper gives a comprehensive analysis of the issue, covering most of the aspects, with some speculations/expectations from NSA’s visit.
    The aspects of Chinese compulsion of standing up to the larger than life image created by China in general and President Xi Jinping in particular in domestic community and domestic politics, especially in view of forthcoming elections is preventing them to soften up. It needs little more elaboration because China and US may be treating it as a test case of their stand off in South China Sea.
    In one of my comments on global times, that any two sided scenerio building exercise will lead to only one conclusion that any land conflict will end into a stalemate, which is damaging for Xi Jinping’s image, hence the best option for China in given circumstances is psychological warfare, together with other modes of building pressure on India, hoping that India may recoil, and it can win the stand off without fighting, in accordance with Sun Tzu’s teachings.
    We therefore need to follow Kautilya, by playing it cool but firm in our stand and prevent this incremental encroachment part of Active Defence Strategy of China, ignoring the rhetorics of Global Times for Chinese domestic consumption. We, however need to be prepared for worst case scenario.
    Gen Asthana

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